Sunday, August 12, 2012

Krabat: The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1978)

Original title: Carodejuv ucen

Lusatia in the late 17th or early 18th Century. Krabat is an orphan, roaming the countryside, getting by rather badly. One day around Christmas time, talking ravens lure Krabat to the Black River Mill. The mill's one-eyed master - who just happens to speak with the same voice as the one-eyed leader of the ravens - takes the boy into his service as an apprentice. The master keeps Krabat and his eleven other apprentices as virtual prisoners.

That might be because, as Krabat soon enough learns, the master is not really teaching his apprentices how to be millers, but how to work black magic, especially how to transform into animals. Once a year, the master challenges the best of his apprentices to a duel, for there can only be one master in the mill. The duel's conclusion, however, is always foregone because the master keeps his grimoire and with it the greatest magical powers to himself, giving the whole affair the air of a particularly cruel ritual. Attempts to escape are always thwarted by the master's superior magical powers and punished with imaginative cruelty.

One day around Holy Saturday, when the apprentices are allowed to leave the mill to spend a night at a place where someone died a violent death, Krabat sees and falls in love with a beautiful singing girl. This love will change the course of Krabat's fate, for love may turn out to be stronger than the forces of magic.

Krabat is based on the book by German Otfried Preußler, who is still a widely read author of the sort of children's books that give a certain type of conservative conniptions, what with them often including elements of the fantastic and not always painting witches, nor sorcerers in the worst light, and actually acknowledging the less pleasant sides of life. I'd not be surprised if the early contact with Preußler's often folkloristically inspired books - Krabat's story is based on a very specific folk tale - were in part responsible for my taste for the macabre and the weird in literature. But I digress.

This Czech (with some financial help from German TV) animated version of Preußler's tale was directed by the great Karel Zeman, an animation pioneer and owner of a wholly personal style of filmmaking whose earlier works - among it some breathtaking adaptations/homages to Jules Verne and a singular version of the Baron Münchhausen tales - often mixed real-life actors and his splendid cutout animation technique.

Krabat does not include live action elements (well, except some water and smoke), but has the look and feel of old woodcuts come to life, with the shadow of one of Zeman's great artistic idols, Gustav Doré, not far. This form is ideal for a story that is in turns simple, naive (though there is still the same fable about the lures and horrors of power and how to escape them at its core as in Preußler's book) and optimistic, as well as gruesome and macabre in some of the things it shows, and even more so in those things it implies, because it makes it easy for Zeman to change Krabat's mood at a moment's notice. Moments of quiet charm and peace, moments of pure imagination and moments of the grotesque are transitioning into each other, suggesting that the film shares the world view of the folktale its based on twice removed; things horrifying and things evil are as much parts of the human experience as are love and laughter, though the latter just may be what makes us human more than the former.

One particular accomplishment of Zeman's film (and something Zeman always was particularly good at) is how it manages to filter the director's own imagination through the lens of a rural late 17th century worldview without ever making the impression of one part of the film's philosophy overwhelming the other; it's all Zeman, yet it's also all Krabat.

No comments: